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Meet the woman who’s standing up to gentrification in her working class Bronx neighborhood

Editor’s Note: Jerome Avenue in the Bronx is a hub of working class families, but residents worry that their way of life could be at risk under a proposed idea to rezone 57 blocks along the street. In one study that surveyed Bronx residents, 80 percent of respondents said they fear the rezoning could displace them by introducing higher housing prices. In response, photographers working with the Bronx Photo League decided to document the images and stories of Jerome Avenue’s residents in the Jerome Avenue Workers Project. Below, photographer Edwin Torres discusses his role in the project and why he approached Ramona, a business owner on Jerome Avenue.

Edwin Torres, photographer (as told to Corinne Segal)

Me and another photographer were out shooting Jerome Avenue and we were walking past one of the stores, and we kept seeing this woman hanging outside of one of the shops, which is very different. The street feels dominated by men. Ramona was just there, talking to a lot of people — she looked like she was in charge.

At first she said, “I don’t know you, I don’t know what this is about, I don’t want to be photographed.” I completely thought it was never going work out from the first few tries.

Finally, she took me to the office at her autorepair shop and we sat down for 20 minutes. It was an amazing interview … It’s not just a repair shop. It’s her life story. It’s where she spent most of her life. And a lot of the other shops along Jerome Avenue — these aren’t just people’s work. These are their livelihoods. They spend more time working and living on Jerome than actually at home. If they’re there working on Saturday and it’s 7 p.m., they’re going to pull out the domino table and start playing dominos and music. It’s a sense of community and culture mixed with lots of hard work.

I’m Puerto Rican. I was born and raised in the Bronx. I grew up always seeing that kind of scenario play out. My dad was an ad hoc mechanic, pretty much took up mechanic gigs whenever there was extra money to be made. We would always hang around those shops. So it’s something I can relate to and understand.

It’s very easy to label a set of repair shops and mechanic shops as something filthy and strictly commercial and strictly business. It’s very easy to label it as that. But it’s not so easy to see that these are people’s lives here. And the majority of these business owners are in the 50-year-old range. For them to relocate, when they have been working there for 20, 30 years — for them to relocate and try to build a new customer base is just not feasible.

Ramona, pictured (as told to Torres) 

I am the owner of the business. My ex-husband was the owner for 20 years and since 2006 I have worked here. We are Dominicans. I came here in 1981. I have been working here since 1990. First I was a manager for two different car washes. Manager at two different tire shops. He was always a mechanic, this was a parking lot. He had a booth where he did tune ups and car inspections. The he taught me and I applied for my own license. Eventually I enjoyed working with help and appreciated working independently, not answering to anyone.

If you move, you lose the customer service, you may not have anything. If we move, for us we would have to start all over again from scratch. We lose the customer base. I cannot relocate to another area. I am 54 years old. I am too tired. I am not strong enough to start again. I already have a method with my clients. I have plans on when I plan to retire and how I am going to leave. If they destroy the buildings then we have to look for where to go. It will change your entire life. It won’t be the same.

Interviews have been edited for length. The word “parallax” describes the camera error that occurs when an image looks different through a viewfinder than how it is recorded by a sensor; when one camera gives two perspectives. Parallax is a blog where photographers offer the unexpected sides and stories of their work. Tell us yours or share on Instagram at #PBSParallax.

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